A second chance

Meled offers an alternative high school for Jerusalem’s religious dropouts.

Meled 521 (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Meled 521
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Meled, a unique coed high school in downtown Jerusalem for dropouts – many of them Anglos – from the city’s religious secondary schools, girls’ seminaries and boys’ yeshivot, recently hired its first fund-raiser to meet the growing challenge of serving students from observant and traditional homes who don’t fit in in traditional educational frameworks.
For Malkie Ben-Zekry, 26, the newly appointed director of development, working at Meled – a Hebrew acronym for Religious Study Center – is like coming home. Herself an alumna of the class of 2003, she knows firsthand the despair a teenage dropout can face.
“I started high school at Amalia [a secondary school for religious girls]. In the middle of ninth grade, I was ratted on for smoking a cigarette, and was kicked out immediately,” she recalls. “I decided if my high school was turning its back on me, I would turn my back on the system.”
For half a year Ben-Zekry joined the ranks of disaffected youth who hang out downtown on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall and at the corner of Jaffa Road and Rivlin Street they’ve dubbed Crack Square. Some turn to petty crime or prostitution to pay for drugs and alcohol. Many are homeless, having been thrown out by their families.
“Finally I heard about Meled. I started studying again,” she remembers.
Ben-Zekry never completed her bagrut (matriculation exams) but did a two-year stint in National Service – with troubled youth naturally – where she received a certificate of excellence.
She credits Meled’s founder and dean Menachem Gottesman with saving her life.
“He’s a legend,” she says of the US-born psychologist who founded Meled in 1997. “This is an amazing school that brings out the potential in every student – even those who have been given up on by other schools.”
Ben-Zekry and Gottesman have four items on their wish list: an afternoon drop-in center for informal education and recreation; expanding the drama and music programs; renting and furnishing an apartment for female students who have been asked to leave home by their families; and establishing a new and larger facility.
Meled’s current building at 30 Hillel Street, which is owned by the municipality, is designated as the site of the proposed future courthouse. Even if the government center is not built, the cramped space “doesn’t give us any flexibility to serve our kids more effectively. The school building is very inadequate,” notes Gottesman.
The educator, who has a rich background in academia and clinical work in Israel and the United States, recalls during the tenure of mayor Uri Lupolianski a potential donor came forward who was prepared to pay for the refurbishing of a new school building. However, according to Gottesman the mayor torpedoed City Hall providing a municipal property for the private school.
For Ben-Zekry and Gottesman, Meled’s top priority is simply keeping its doors open. Two-thirds of the school’s NIS 2 million annual budget is covered by the Education Ministry. The remainder comes from tuition fees, but the majority of the 55 students currently enrolled are subsidized. Indeed, the school provides a hot lunch twice a week. For many of the students it’s the only meal they’ll eat that day, Ben-Zekry notes.
Gottesman explains Meled is based on Summerhill, a revolutionary British boarding school founded in 1921 with the belief that the institution should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. While offering a “totally non-pressurized environment” that is less rigid than other high schools, Meled is an academic institution, he emphasizes.
“We prepare our students for bagrut. But that’s a double entendre. Bagrut also means ‘growing up,’” he says with a smile.
Citing the work of American psychiatrist Milton Hyland Erickson, who specialized in family therapy, Gottesman bases Meled’s approach on an “epidemic of love. We love kids.” The school’s other cardinal principles are to accept each student as he or she is, to create mutual trust, and to give and demand respect.
Together these principles foster improved selfesteem, lead to a feeling of success, and enable students to make better choices in terms of responsibility and accountability.
With more than 400 graduates since 1998, Gottesman has a track record of returning teens to the framework of normal life. Many go on to enlist in the IDF and pursue professional careers, he emphasizes.
“Every kid who comes out of Meled is a hero, able to fulfill what he innately has.”
However idealistic, Gottesman and his staff of 16 fulland part-time professional educators, counselors and tutors recognize that some teens, whose issues go beyond emotional trauma and learning disabilities, cannot be helped there.
“We know our limitations. We’re in a sense a cardiac care unit. But if a kid needs a heart transplant we will send him to Returno or another place that deals with drug and alcohol rehabilitation,” he acknowledges.
Like Ben-Zekry, Ariel Wilchfort, 27, is also a former Meled student who has returned as a staff member.
Today he serves as the spiritual adviser for the school’s students and staff while studying for his BA in education.
Wilchfort recalls how painful it was to drop out of yeshiva in ninth grade.
“They were about to throw me out. It wasn’t a place for me. I got into trouble. I got into fights. The principal heard I played Gameboy on Shabbat. That was the big boom,” he recalls.
After hanging out on the streets for a few months, Wilchfort registered at Meled.
“The responsibility was put in my hands, as opposed to the institution’s,” he recalls.
Rachel Halali, 24, is yet another former student who today is part of the Meled team. She had dropped out of a haredi school she found too restrictive. Since September she has been the school’s secretary. Halali, Wilchfort and Ben-Zekry all characterize Meled as a surrogate family for those from broken homes.
“Every graduate here has a certain longing and comes back to visit. I had a discussion with Menachem. He told me the secretary had left, and asked me if I’d like the position. At first it was strange. I wasn’t sure if I was still a student or now a member of staff,” Halali explains.
Everyone loves to come back here, she concludes.
To which Ben-Zekry adds “How many schools can say that?” Ahuvia Edelson, 17 and finishing his fourth year at Meled, concurs about the school’s warm and welcoming atmosphere that he contrasts with Jerusalem’s High School for the Performing Arts, from which he dropped out.
“I wasn’t able to learn there. There were too many students in a class, and too much noise. There’s a lot of freedom here to choose how I want to study. It gives me motivation.”
Like many students, Edelson has a learning disability. Attention Deficit hyperactiviy disorder and ADD are both common, he notes. Meled’s intimate student to teacher ratio and lack of compulsory attendance suits his disability, he says.
Meled is a rarity among Jerusalem schools in that it accepts students mid-term, Gottesman notes. Enrollment creeps up as the academic year proceeds.
“We believe in the kids; 90 percent will graduate bagrut when they’re ready. They’re square pegs in round holes. Our record of success is 90% – in life.” •